Songs – The Best Way to Build a Child’s Jewish Identity

by Rena Morano

I love to sing, which is a good thing for me, but sometimes not so good for those in listening range! I especially love to sing Jewish melodies. Some people have even told me that when I sing Jewish songs, I sound pretty good (or at least OK!)! I think the reason is that those tunes from my Jewish childhood come from a place deep inside; a place without self-consciousness or pre-meditation; a place that feels like my soul is singing and joining its voice with the voices of the generations.

When I had a farm, I used to milk my goats to the tune of Mi HaIsh Hechafetz Chaim (Psalm 34 – Whoever loves life / and desires to see many good days, / keep your tongue from evil / and your lips from telling lies. / Turn from evil and do good; / seek peace and pursue it.) and I gathered eggs from my chickens while serenading them with Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), from the High Holiday liturgy. When I sang out Mizmor L’David, Hashem Roii Lo Echsar – the 23rd Psalm – the sheep would come running for their ration of grain.

After I had children, I’d rock them to sleep to the sounds of the Shema and Oyfn Pripetshik, a folksong about children learning the aleph bet. And I’d wake them up with a loud rendition of the morning prayer Modeh Ani followed by a rousing Hinei Mah Tov.

Those songs and prayer tunes, and many more, were learned effortlessly in Hebrew School, at synagogue, or just listening to my mother and father sing as they worked around the house. They weren’t necessarily children’s songs, and they didn’t have to be. They represented Yiddishkeit, and they forged an enduring connection to Jewish holidays, Shabbats, and all who came before me and who would come after me.

Songs from early childhood stay with children and help them acquire Jewish values and a vibrant Jewish identity. Along with special foods, children form lasting associations between holidays and music, whether it is an upbeat tune for Mah Nishtana on Passover, Maoz Tzur on Chanukah, Chag Purim on Purim, or a plaintive tune from Rosh HaShanah.

Hebrew School students often ask me why Chanukah isn’t as much fun as Christmas. Families try to remedy that situation by making Chanukah more oriented around presents; but that’s not the best solution to the December dilemma. Christmas is fun because of the music even though most of the songs aren’t about the religious holiday, but about the winter season. When the airwaves are filled with holiday music, add your own from the rich reservoirs of Jewish folksongs, dance tunes, psalms and prayers.

Singing to and with children is easy to do, and doesn’t require any special materials or skills. It just takes a sense of fun, and maybe some gusto! Parents and grandparents: sing Jewish prayers at mealtimes, sing songs, any Jewish songs, when celebrating a good time, or for comfort at times of difficulty or loss. Don’t worry if you don’t know all of the words! Teachers: infuse religious school time with music, even if you aren’t musically talented. Service leaders: sing with your congregations, especially when children are present, and please, please, whenever possible, avoid choirs and cantors that congregants can’t sing along with.

We are indeed fortunate to be living in a time when there is an upsurge in Jewish music made just for children. There are songs that teach basic Hebrew vocabulary, Jewish values, and holiday cheer. Those are wonderful and a great addition to any family’s music library. But I hope you will remember that to instill children with a love of Jewish songs, it isn’t necessary to purchase CDs or download music. All it takes is for you to SING!

View Rena’s Article below as it was published in the August 2019 edition of the Jewish News.